Book Review: The Childhood of Jesus

The Childhood of Jesus is the strangest work of fiction I've read in a really long time -- and I anticipated that, having read J.M. Coetzee in graduate school at UChicago (fun fact: my professor and the author were friends, which made class fun and full of interesting anecdotes). I remember feeling surprised and courted by Coetzee's unusual prose, stark environments and wildly suggestive themes. By suggestive, I don't mean sexual; I mean jarring, uncomfortable, thought-provoking in the political and humanistic sense.

Coetzee is a South African novelist who primarily produces fiction, but also letters, and essays. He focuses on philosophy (particularly in South African regions), apartheid, politics, law and animal rights. If you're new to Coetzee's work, start with Disgrace (my personal favorite), and then venture toward Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life & Times of Michael K.

Back to the focus of this post: in Childhood, we meet Simón, a man who has arrived by boat to the city of Novilla with a small child named David. We don't know where Novilla is. We don't know why Simón has David -- is he the father? Brother? Caretaker? We don't know how old Simón is, or what he looks like, or where he came from. 

We do know that Simón is looking for work, hoping to find it as quickly as possible, and we know that he can't seem to remember much of his journey to Novilla, much like everyone else he meets. In fact, Simón's name is not even his real name; it turns out everyone is assigned a new name upon arriving at Novilla. Coetzee's world is hazy, full of confusion and shapeless characters. Conformity is prized in an apparently secular environment; friendship, desire, love are viewed with a raised eyebrows by the inhabitants Simón encounters.

Simón does his best to try to understand his new home, and mostly asks a lot of questions. At one point, he asks his coworkers at the docks, "Have you ever asked yourself whether the price we pay for this new life, the price of forgetting, may not be too high?? In the meantime, he tries to find David's mother -- a quest we as readers don't really understand, but one that Simón takes up with fervor. Whether or not he succeeds is up for interpretation, just like the totality of the novel.

David seems like a spoiled brat, so I'm unsure of the correlation (or maybe the suggestion?) of someone in the novel being representative of Jesus. His character becomes more and more idiosyncratic by every page turn. I almost wonder if the outlandishness of the text parallels the unbelievable-ness of the story of Jesus himself. Coetzee imagines the "childhood of Jesus" as an essentially new fable, one that doesn't offer a lot of hope for faith in something intangible.

Simón eventually pursues a "relationship" with a woman named Elena, one deserving of quotation marks because it is devoid of substance. During an argument, when he tries to tell her that he will seek out other women to, meet his needs, shall we say, she responds: 

To my ear, this is an old way of thinking. In the old way of thinking, no matter how much you may have, there is always something missing. The name you choose to give this something-more that is missing is passion. Yet I am willing to bet that if tomorrow you were offered all the passion you wanted — passion by the bucketful — you would promptly find something new to miss, to lack. This endless dissatisfaction, this yearning for the something-more that is missing, is a way of thinking that we are well rid of . . . Nothing is missing. The nothing that you think is missing is an illusion. You are living by an illusion.
— Elena, The Childhood of Jesus

Coetzee proposes a world lacking passion, and asks: how does one create meaning within it?